Trigger Warning: This letter mentions an incident of sexual assault.
My name is Alexis, and I’m a former Mount Holyoke College student. In 2011, I was raped at Amherst College and went through the disciplinary hearing process.
I would just like to personally thank you for being so open and willing to change both the Amherst College disciplinary hearing process for sexual assault cases and the overall culture at Amherst College. It seems misogynistic and rape culture has been a long-standing problem, not just at Amherst College, but all over the world.
I am writing to you in response to Angie Epifano’s recent article in The Student. I’m sure you have been receiving many emails regarding this article and I am glad you have been so responsive. However, I felt compelled to write to you because her story triggered much emotion and brought back many memories. On Feb. 26, 2011, during my freshmen year at Mount Holyoke College, I was raped by an Amherst College acquaintance at King Hall. I ended up reporting this incident to both my school and Amherst College and had a disciplinary hearing on Sept. 25, 2011. At first I thought that the rape was the worst day of my life. However, I was far from right. I have more flashbacks about this hearing than I do about my rape. I was appalled that Amherst College handled the matters in my case with extreme insensitivity.
The main problem with the hearing is that the disciplinary hearing committee (made up of three Amherst College students and two Amherst College faculty members) was not informed as to what rape is. They may have been “previously trained;” however, this was far from apparent. My rapist submitted 80 pages of our personal Skype conversations to the disciplinary hearing committee. Throughout the hearing the committee would constantly refer to these conversations when in reality only three (if any) pages were actually relevant to the situation. The only pages that were relevant were the ones that talked about the actual incident and the night that it happened. However, the disciplinary hearing committee was extremely focused on the nature of our relationship and the reasons why I could have “made this up.” Rape is about the actual incident and the violation that occurs to a human being. It doesn’t matter their previous relationship or how they know each other. Rape is rape. I recall a student on the disciplinary hearing committee asking me a question about if I hadn’t wanted to “have sex” with my rapist, why was I sitting on his bed a couple weeks prior? After a couple long seconds Dean Allen Hart deemed the question as “not relevant to the case.” Nonetheless, this is exactly my point. If the student truly had knowledge about what sexual assault and rape are he would not have asked this question. In matters that are so serious and life changing, it is of utmost importance to have people who actually know the nature of what they are dealing with. Additionally, a professor from your institution framed a question very insensitively asking if I had just thought what had happened to me was rape because “my friend had told me.” If she also understood what rape is she would know that oftentimes rape is not something you want to think happened to you. It is a horrific thing to happen to someone and changes your life forever. Suddenly when you become raped there is a stigma against you and you are put in the “victim” category. It is hard to admit someone was raped because who wants to have power and control taken away from him or her? Who wants to feel that someone can violate them in such a violent and brutal manner? Rape brings out many emotions, such as shame, guilt and fear. Thus, I encourage you to have trained professionals dealing with this manner. Both of these comments are the main sources of my flashbacks to this day. It is not what my rapist said in the hearing (as I wasn’t allowed to hear anything), but what “neutral” Amherst College representatives said to me. After the disciplinary hearing committee interviewed me, I remember shaking and crying to my Dean of Students (who I brought with me as my “advisor”) and my disciplinary hearing officer, who worked at Amherst College, saying over and over again, “They just don’t understand. They don’t understand what rape is.” This is not the kind of reaction rape victims/survivors should ever have before, during or after a disciplinary hearing.
Another critique I had of this hearing was the use of character witnesses. I am not sure if your institution still does these or not; however, I feel in sexual assault cases as serious as these, character witnesses should not be allowed. A great, wonderful person can do horrible things and a horrible person can do great and amazing things. Who is to judge anyway? These are all subjective and I believe these witnesses add no value whatsoever to these cases. Additionally, I feel that it is best for those participating in the hearing to be facing the hearing committee instead of each other. Part of the reason I chose a disciplinary hearing officer (besides the fact that I did not want to be completely retriggered, which happened anyway due to the committee’s questions) was because I did not want to look my rapist in the face after everything that he did. However, when it was my turn to speak he was placed on a video camera via Skype on a computer, which was right in front of me. Having his face that close to me was too much for me to handle and was completely insensitive of the nature of this case.
I chose the disciplinary hearing officer route, as I had a court-ordered harassment prevention issue against my rapist. I am beyond thrilled to hear that future students will be able to hear everything that is being said during the hearing, as I felt that only being able to hear my side and not being able to hear any of his side put me at an extreme disadvantage.
As a Five-College student, I felt extremely disadvantaged, as I felt that I was stepping on Amherst College “territory.” How dare I accuse an Amherst College student? However, I already felt unsafe at Amherst College because of what happened, so if anything, I was trying to do a favor for both Amherst College and the Five-College community. A student had taken advantage of me in a way that I would never wish upon anyone. Throughout the whole hearing process, I was constantly attacked. In addition to working with the Amherst College community, I more than urge you to work with the Five-College community on this issue as well. If the Five Colleges are truly a “consortium” students from all of these colleges should be informed as to what the process is and feel good about the process. My experience was not good and discouraged outsiders who heard my story from choosing this course of action because of the second victimization that your institution issued upon me.
On Sept. 26, 2011, I decided to transfer from Mount Holyoke College. Not because I no longer loved my school, but solely because of the way your institution handled an incident that I am lucky to be alive from. It takes a lot for a victim/survivor to not only come forward, but to actually go through with a hearing. I hope in the future, students will not be discouraged by this hearing process and will not have to feel so unsafe, unsupported and revictimized by an institution.
I thank you for your time, and I look forward to being in touch regarding this matter.